Given regulatory barriers and structural differences in practice, private equity firms have been slow to acquire and roll up physician practices and other care assets in other countries in the same way they’ve done here in the US. But according a fascinating piece in the Financial Times, investors have targeted a different healthcare segment, one ripe for the “efficiencies” that roll-ups can bring—small veterinary practices in the UK and Ireland.
British investment firm IVC bought up hundreds of small vet practices across the UK, only to be acquired itself by Swedish firm Evidensia, which is now the largest owner of veterinary care sites, with more than 1,500 across Europe. Vets describe the deals as too good to refuse: one who sold his practice to IVC said “he ‘almost fell off his chair’ on hearing how much it was offering. The vet, who requested anonymity, says IVC mistook his shock for hesitation—and increased its offer.” (Physician executives in the US, take note.) IVC claims that its model provides more flexible options, especially for female veterinarians seeking more work-life balance than offered by the typical “cottage” veterinary practice.
But consumers have complained of decreased access to care as some local clinics have been shuttered as a result of roll-ups. Meanwhile prices, particularly for pet medications like painkillers or feline insulin, have risen as much as 40 percent—and vets aren’t given leeway to offer the discounts they previously extended to low-income customers. And with IVC attaining significant market share in some communities (for instance, owning 17 of 32 vet practices in Birmingham), questions have arisen about diminished competition and even price fixing.
The playbook for private equity is consistent across human and animal healthcare: increase leverage, raise prices for care, and slash practice costs, all with little obvious value for consumers. It remains to be seen whether and how consumers will push back—either on behalf of their beloved pets, or for the sake of their own health.
As “consumerism” becomes an ever-greater focus of health system strategy, we’ve begun to field a number of questions from leaders looking to develop a better understanding of consumers in their market.
In particular, there’s a growing desire for more sophistication around consumer segmentation—understanding how preferences and behavior differ among various kinds of patients.
Traditional segmentation has largely been marketing-driven, helping to target advertising and patient recruitment messages to key groups. For that, the old-school marketing segments were good enough: busy professionals, the worried well, the growing family, and so forth.
But as systems begin to develop product offerings (telemedicine or home-based services, for example) for target populations, those advertising-based segments need to be supplemented with a more advanced understanding of care consumption patterns over time. Segmentation needs to be dynamic, not static—how does a person move through life stages, and across care events, over time?
A single consumer might be in different segments depending on the type of care they need: if I have a new cancer diagnosis, that matters more than whether I’m a “busy professional”, and my relevant segment might be different still if I’m just looking for a quick virtual visit.
Layered on top of demographic and clinical segments is the additional complexity of payer category—am I a Medicare Advantage enrollee or do I have a high-deductible exchange plan?
With consumers exercising ever greater choice over where, when, and how much care to receive, understanding the interplay of these different kinds of segments is fast becoming a key skill for health systems—one that many don’t currently have.
Humana, the nation’s second-largest Medicare Advantage (MA) insurer, is pushing further into home-based care, partnering with Denver-based startup DispatchHealth to offer its members—especially those with conditions like heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and chronic cellulitis—access to hospital-level care at home.
The service will initially be available in the Denver and Tacoma, WA markets, with plans to expand to Arizona, Nevada, and Texas across 2021. Humana members who meet hospital admission criteria will receive daily home visits from an on-call, dedicated DispatchHealth medical team, as well as 24/7 physician coverage enabled by remote monitoring and an emergency call button.
DispatchHealth will also coordinate other patient care and wraparound services in the home as needed, including pharmacy, imaging, physical therapy, durable medical equipment, and meal delivery. Dispatch’s earlier offerings centered around home-based, on-demand urgent and emergency care services, now available in at least 29 cities nationwide.
Humana’s partnership with DispatchHealth could deliver a full care continuum of home-based services to its Medicare Advantage enrollees and has the potential to displace hospitals from at least a portion of acute care services.
Post-COVID, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the nexus of care delivery has shifted even more rapidly to consumers’ homes—and traditional providers will need to rethink service strategies accordingly.
It turns out it’s not just the kids who aren’t getting snow days this year. This week, we spoke with an executive at a health system hit hard by Wednesday’s Nor’easter, and asked how the system was faring with the expected 18 inches of snowfall. He replied that the medical group was as busy as usual.
With all the work this spring to expand telemedicine capabilities, clinic staff were able to reach out to patients the day before the storm, and proactively convert a majority of scheduled in-person clinic visits to telemedicine. “Normally we would’ve been closed, and most appointments rescheduled for weeks down the road,” he told us. Instead, they were able to keep most of those visits in their scheduled time slot.
“Now that we have a systemwide process for telemedicine, I don’t think we’ll have a reason for the clinic to take a snow day again.” It’s a clear win-win for the system and patients: patient care seamlessly goes on. It’s easy to see the many use cases for the ability to toggle between in-person and virtual visits. A parent is stuck at home with a sick kid, and can’t make her endocrinologist appointment? Moved to virtual! A patient has an unexpected business trip taking him out of town? Don’t cancel, let’s do that follow-up visit via telemedicine.
We’ve been worried about the slowdown in progress made on telemedicine as patients switched back to in-person visits across the summer and fall. The ability to continue patient care during a record-breaking snowstorm is a perfect illustration of why it’s critical not to “backslide” with virtual care: meeting patients where they are, regardless of circumstances, is an essential part of building long-term loyalty and care continuity.
While telemedicine visits have decreased sharply since their early pandemic peak, we’re hearing from providers across the country that patient demand for email communication has persisted.
Many patients have missed meaningful in-person interactions with their doctors. But once they sign up for the portal and realize they can email, they don’t want to go back to spending time on hold or scheduling a visit to get a prescription refill or the answer to a simple question.
Email and messaging saves patients a lot of time, but the sheer amount has quickly become unmanageable for many doctors. “Last year I got half a dozen emails per week from patients,” one primary care physician told us. “Now I’m spending two hours a day answering MyChart messages, and I’m still not keeping up.”
And as many are quick to point out, there is little to no compensation for time spent emailing. Health systems and physician practices can’t “roll back” this service—removing this satisfier would expose them to losing patients altogether.
In the near term, systems must invest in the staff and infrastructure to create a centralized process to triage messages. And longer-term, they must align physician compensation and payment models away from visit-based economics and toward comprehensive patient communication and management.